I went to a writing class this Sunday. In my eternal quest to get past chapter one of my book (hurrah!) I have decided to enlist professional help and decided that the pressure of a group of real, live, breathing people plus a teacher would be good for morale, plus I could get some tips on actual plot, which seems to be the sticking point *cough*.
I had to drive to Berkeley, which was an adventure in and of itself because I am not very fond of heights or driving over big bridges. I mean, I can manage getting across the Thames without incident, even on a double decker, but the Bay Bridge is an entirely different animal – it goes on for bloody EVER – and I spend the whole time worrying about earthquakes and falling beams which is not very helpful or productive so I was rather flustered by the time I arrived.
The room filled up slowly. There were about ten of us. Four women, six men, a few lawyers, some marketing people, a tech writer, an older man who had done his undergraduate studies in creative writing and subsequently spent thirty five years on a construction site. The lady who sat next to me, a sweetly smiling, plump woman in her early thirties, told me she ‘didn’t work’ because she had two children aged 1 and 2 (??!!) and her husband was a pastor so she helped him in his parish. She has ambitions to write Christian fiction which is a genre I had never heard of but I am certain has a huge market here in the US. The teacher asked us to pair off, spend a few minutes getting to know one another and then introduce our partner to the class by way of getting to know one another. It’s fascinating to hear what other people have taken in and choose to present about you to the room. I was with my Christian lady, Mary, and she chose, out of all the things I told her about my life, my work, and background, to tell the others that I was
” .. a mom, has a mommy blog and she likes music”.
This is all true, of course, but is not how I would necessarily have described myself. No matter. I’m fairly private as a person, and if anything I prefer to keep myself to myself ( not like those creepy neighbours who turn out to be axe murderers, though). I was content to listen to my classmates’ accounts instead. I did notice, however, a certain dynamic start to emerge during the class. The lawyers and marketing execs were very vocal, although not necessarily terribly insightful, and quite often, if Mary, Christian fiction lady spoke up, which she did rather timidly and quietly, while the teacher paid her due attention, the others gave off a slight but discernable waft of contempt. I began to sense it coming towards me, especially after one of them asked me, somewhat condescendingly, if I was going to write a story for or about children, seeing as that’s what I spent all my time doing.
That pissed me off.
Just because I have kids, and might spend a lot of time with them (and actually, these days I don’t but that’s beside the point), it doesn’t mean that I don’t have any other interests, that I can only write about people under 10, or that I have the intellect and experience of an 8 year old myself. I have actually got a brain (somewhere, sure I saw it at the bottom of my handbag underneath a bag of crackers), and I have actually LIVED SOME LIFE, YOU LITTLE PIPSQUEAK, PROBABLY BEFORE YOU’D HAD YOUR FIRST SHAG.
No, I’m perfectly calm. I’m just looking for my pills, hang on. Also underneath the crackers, near my brain..
I smiled politely and said I wasn’t really sure. I was a bit stuck on plot, but found it easy to write, so time would tell, blah blah. By this point the questioner had already stopped listening to me, moved on to doubtless more interesting and talented, serious artistes, and I had hatched a plan for his painful, slow death. I would invite Christian fiction lady, Mary. I thought she’d enjoy it – it was quite biblical in its way.
The teacher set us an exercise. We had two sheets of paper. On one, we’d write down the name of a place, one that was easy for all to recognise, and then write ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. on the next sheet of paper we would write down an emotion. Then we had to pass one piece of paper to the left, the other to the right so we were left with an emotion and a place w/connotation that we had not originated ourselves. Then we had 10 mins to write down a list descriptive details on each sheet of paper, but no emotional content. After that, he gave us another 10 minutes to write as much as we could – a paragraph or so- based on our descriptors, bringing them to life, but we couldn’t say where the place was, or what our emotion was. We just had to convey it through the detail. I believe this is a fairly standard exercise in creative writing, the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach. When the time was up, he asked for a volunteer to read. Surprisingly, the lawyers and marketers came over shy. So I stepped up. Here is what read to them:
I sat there staring at him, trying to cover myself with the damp, fetid sheet that had once been white. He was still holding the worn polyester comforter, now ripped beyond repair. Dropping it, he tapped an unfiltered cigarette from the crumpled pack he always kept in his top shirt pocket. It was not the same brand as the other two, ground into stubs in the overflowing ashtray on the ringed and chipped bedside table. Taking a deep drag, he blew a thin, hard stream of smoke towards the ceiling, temporarily displacing a circus of flies patrolling the naked fluorescent bulb. He picked up one of the empty bottles from the stained, brown carpet and looked straight at me. My skin prickled and my tongue instantly went dry. I pulled my feet in towards my knees and blinked a few times, trying to make myself smaller, less noticeable. He put his head to the side, yellow teeth smiling nastily, a black space where the gold one had been sold for a fix. I could smell my own sweat mixed with yesterday’s beer, stale smoke and the faint odor of vomit that never left the floor. I thought I heard a woman crying, it might have been me.
There was a satisfying silence afterwards and a pleasurable flicker of what could be construed as either fear or distaste on the faces of one or two of my classmates. I looked at Christian fictionlady Mary. She beamed at me with open warmth.
Good job! she whispered. I loved it!
I’m now extremely intrigued to find out more about Christian fiction.